That is no small problem, but it is worth emphasizing that our policies on compensation and retirement benefits not only are costly, in terms of trying to fix them before they lead to fiscal collapse for the city, but they are costly in terms of limiting our ability for government to meet the changing needs of its citizenry.
At some point in the next five years, we will have to divert general fund money to pay for road upgrades.
But there is a bigger problem. Our councilmembers are largely unpaid. More importantly, they are not afforded their own staff. This makes them completely reliant on city staff analysis and renders it difficult for them to do independent analysis or oversight over city staff.
One place where this issue has come up is on the Zipcar issue, where council trusted city staff’s analysis, which turned out to be faulty, particularly on the issue of legal protections. Then council members relied on a Fact Sheet that turned out to be fictitious and erroneous in its claims about the contract.
The city only spends a little over $125,000 on the council. There are no salaries and no employees to help council do a fulltime job. That means that councilmembers either have to be independently wealthy, receiving a pension, or have a spouse contribute the vast majority of the income.
That limits the ability of certain segments of the population to serve, and is a large reason why someone like Lamar Heystek might only wish to serve for one term.
But there is more. The city still operates in the dark ages in communication, and this is a huge problem. When the city does a project, they have to create paper and send out snail mail to neighbors and residents.
It is an antiquated and very limited outreach. Hundreds of interested citizens who do not happen to reside in the immediate vicinity of a given project are kept in the dark – inadvertently.
And there is no reason to do that. Not in the age of instant free communications. A sophisticated operation could also utilize email, social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, and even text messaging to get the word out to the public.
Such a system would be easy to implement if the city had someone to do it.
But it is more than just a communication tool, it is a public safety tool. It is a means to get information to the public in the case of a real emergency. We had a dry run a few years ago, when a big storm just after New Year’s knocked out power to large portions of Davis. We needed to organize shelters and mobilize resources. But the city lacked the infrastructure to do it effectively. Luckily it was a fairly minor incident, but it could have been much worse.
The city currently relies on an Assistant City Manager as a media outreach person and, while she is competent and diligent, she is also not an expert.
The city really needs to revamp its public information department. It has a website that is largely antiquated. It does not have any interactive features. It loses a ton by not engaging the public in debate and getting feedback from a very well-educated and active community.
The city has email lists for agendas that apparently have not worked in months, probably because no one is using them.
The city still discards its videos of council meetings after a given time, meaning that the debate and circumstances of the meetings that are not captured in the votes, the minutes, and the occasional newspaper article are lost.
And unfortunately, though all of this is a very easy fix to the city, and the interim City Manager is interested in improving communications and transparency, the city lacks the basic funding to hire someone to do these important jobs.
One effect, then, of the current structure of salaries, benefits, and pensions is that the city lacks the resources to modernize, to move outside of the 1990s and toward the social networking age. How difficult would this be to implement? Just about any teenager could manage the social networking angle, but developing the message and creating the system will take a professional communication individual.
The city needs a Public Information Official that is in charge of disseminating important information to the community and helping to get a community that is involved, even more involved. But right now, that cannot happen.
—David M. Greenwald reporting